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Limitations and Shortcomings of Identity Politics in the House on Mango Street

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  25 Shortcomings and Limitations of Identity Politics and Intersectionality... Shortcomings and Limitations of Identity Politics and Intersectionality in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street  Lilijana Burcar  Abstract  Te article offers a systematic critique of identity politics and intersectionality that today dominate Western mainstream literary theory and Anglo-Saxon literary production by bringing to the fore a much overlooked critical intervention on the part of materialist (literary) system theorists and Western Marxist feminists. It then dissects the ways in  which the trappings of identity politics and its upgraded version of intersectionality are manifested in Sandra Cisneros’s Te House on Mango Street  , with the class in the triad of class, race and gender eventually weakened and removed from view. Key words : class, race, gender, identity politics, intersectionality, Te House on Mango Street  , Sandra Cisneros  A  CTA N EOPHILOLOGICA UDK: 821.111(73).09-31Cisneros S.DOI: 10.4312/an.51.1-2.25-38  26 L ILIJANA  B URCAR INTRODUCTION Te House on Mango Street   (1984) is a contemporary American classic, written in the form of vignettes and told from the point of view of a first-generation Mexi-can-American girl, who lives in a Chicago ghetto. Te narrator recounts the tra- jectory of her growth from early childhood to adolescence and beyond by placing it within what mainstream critics acknowledge to be “the socio-political frame of poverty, racial discrimination and gender subjugation” (Olivares 209). But what appears to be a coming-of-age novel whose protest, according to mainstream crit-ics, seems to be channelled into undoing and overcoming the constructs of race, class and gender in fact gives way to a form of bildungsroman concerned primarily  with a seemingly isolated issue of gender. Race and class, as this article argues, in fact resurface sporadically, forming a background tapestry to the discussion of  women’s oppression and gender subjugation. Moreover, with systemic exploitation and racism not only disconnected from gender but pushed into the background as seemingly separate and decontextualized phenomena, Cisneros’s attempt at coming up with a progressive bildungsroman encounters major difficulties and ideological traps. Tese stem from the novel’s subscription to essentialist identity politics and to its upgraded but equally problematic version of intersectionality,  which has dominated contemporary American literary production and Western academia since the early 1980s.Systemic analysis and materialist literary approach (Eagleton), unlike iden-tity politics and its upgraded intersectionalist variant, rest on the understanding of gender and race as integral building blocks of capitalist exploitative relations. Racism and patriarchy are seen as inherent to the functioning of capitalism, con-stituting its operating subsets rather than being separate and decontextualized categories that according to identity politics exist outside the socio-economic system, or, according to intersectionalists, merely run parallel to it as ahistorical phenomena. System theoreticians headed by Marxist feminists argue further that these categories are neither mutually exclusive, a view disseminated by propo-nents of identity politics, nor are they only intersectional and thereby tangentially overlapping, which is a modified approach promoted by intersectionalists. Sys-tem/Marxist feminists instead see these categories as structurally “co-synthetic” (Volpp 1202) and historically specific. Proponents of identity politics, on the oth-er hand, view gendered and racialized categories as self-generating phenomena existing outside broader social relations, thus dismissing the structural causes of their emergence and maintenance. As a result, racism and gender subjugation are reductively interpreted as a matter of individual prejudices, and as driven and sustained simply by negative attitudes that men as a group supposedly uniformly foster towards women and whites against those defined as racialized others. Or,  27 Shortcomings and Limitations of Identity Politics and Intersectionality... as put by Sleeter, identity politics “locates sexism [and racism] in biased attitudes of individuals who [supposedly automatically and wholesomely] limit the op-portunities of other individuals by [simply] treating them stereotypically” (84). Accordingly, patriarchy is conceptualized as prehistoric and universal, and wom-en’s secondary status and gender oppression the result of oppressive attitudes and prejudices supposedly deeply and universally seated in individual men. Similarly, racism is conceptualized as an atavistic leftover of supposedly no longer existing institutional practices. It is presented as a matter of individual bad taste and moral corruption, with social exclusions not structurally but individually conditioned, that is, as arising from a handful of prejudiced individuals targeting other indi- viduals (Wilson 1996). In this way, as pointed out by Choonara and Prasad: “the enemy of the black [remains] white and the enemy of the woman is man. And all  whites are racist like all men are sexist” (N. pag.). LIMITATIONS OF IDENTITY POLITICS AND INTERSECTIONALITY  Te othering of women, which rests on their definition as universally feminine, has been fundamental to capitalist exploitative relations (Lister 1997). Identity politics, which insists on women’s marginalization and gender subjugation being a matter of prejudices and negative behaviour of individual men towards women, avoids these historic conditions and structural demands that have given rise to the contemporary form of institutional patriarchy in Western liberal democra-cies (Moi 1986). Te othering of women has served as a device to justify a new division of labour essential to industrial capitalism which was consolidated in the 19 th  century, and which has ever since rested on the privatization rather than socialization of social reproduction such as child care and elderly care (Burcar Restavracija  ). In its appropriation of wealth, capital is structurally dependent on  women’s different degrees of domestication and the institutional maintenance of their secondary and (semi-) dependent status, or, as put by Mies, on (different degrees of ) their “housewifization” (ix). Tis also leads to the imposition and structural enforcement of women’s secondary status as workers, who are paid for the same work much less than men. Industrial capitalism ushered in a new form of institutional patriarchy based upon the nuclear family and breadwinner model,  which in Western capitalist democracies today continues to hold sway in the form of the so-called 1.5 breadwinner model with women, due to the lack of institu-tionalized child and elderly-care, employed only part-time and for this reason still dependent for their pension and health social transfers on the employment status of their partners/husbands (Burcar Restavracija  ). Rather than patriarchy being  28 L ILIJANA  B URCAR prehistoric and women’s gender subjugation a matter of prejudice, its form and content is historically specific and most certainly not universal to all societies as it is bound up with specific socio-economic arrangements.Accordingly, identity politics also dismisses the structural causes of institu-tional racism and the reasons for its ongoing perpetuation. Rather than being a matter of individual bias and prejudice, racism is structurally conditioned and systemically maintained. Its srcin lies not in “exogenously determined attitudes” (Reich 3), but in “historical, economic and political factors” (Cole 14), associated  with the rise and consolidation of capitalist exploitative system in the West and its imperialist expansionism. From its inception, capitalism in the West has been a “racist project” (Brown and de Lissovoy 608) and race as a social construct was invented and maintained (also by means of pseudoscience) to be deployed “strate-gically” (Smith 188). Racialization has proceeded on the basis of projecting imag-inary insufficiencies and negative characteristics into people under the pretext of their skin colour and has served as a way of dehumanizing and objectifying them. Only by being stripped of their personhood, could the racialized others be turned into a pool of disposable working bodies, bodies worth less than others, and put into the service of fledgling capitalist class as another natural resource that need-ed to be paid nothing or next to nothing. Racialization in all its forms and stages of capitalism has been “a tool to exploit labour more thoroughly” (Bonacich et. al. 352). It has “historically functioned to legitimize extreme oppression and ine-quality” (Wilson 125), that is, super-exploitation of those constructed and deni-grated as racialized others on the home turf of Western imperial capitalist states as well as in their colonial outposts. Racism in the capitalist democracies of the late 20 th  and early 21 st  centuries continues unabated: its form and content have gone from biological racism to cultural racism, with these “newer colour-coded forms of racism […] directed at migrant communities”, which today constitute one of the basic supplies of institutionally cheapened and super-exploited labour for capital (Cole 25). Intersectionality, which functions as a sophisticated extension of identity politics, fails to acknowledge that Western capitalist democracies have been and continue to be based on a racial contract (Brown and de Lissovoy 600) and a sexual contract (Pateman 1988). It avoids the issue of gender and racial oppres-sion being structurally integral to capital accumulation and the fact that these undergo modifications in content and form but will not be done away with as long as this set of relations exists. Intersectionality ‒ also referred to as the the-ory of race, gender and class ‒ takes these categories as givens, just like identity politics whose tenets it replicates, but attempts to complicate them by claim-ing that these categories can at certain moments combine or interlock/inter-sect, thus affecting such individuals differently. In this way, one can experience
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